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The potato – A feast or a famine?

Did you know that an Irish consumer buys potatoes, on average, once every second?

In 2019, over 200,000 tonnes of potatoes were bought in Irish retailers. (Potatoes – The Food of the Future National Potato Conference & Trade Show 2020).

Most of us love a good spud, don’t we? The spud has been part of Irish menus for almost 500 years.  But how well do we know one of our favourite dinner dates?

Edward Kelliher of Kellihers Mills Ltd., Farm, Garden and Pet Supplies knows potatoes better than most and can trace his family’s business in Tralee back to the 1840s. A chat with Edward about potatoes uncovered some interesting facts:

Some juicy potato bits and pieces:
  • Did you know that there are over 4,000 varieties of potatoes to be found in the world?
  • The potato is an ideal nutritional combination of vitamins, minerals, calories, and protein and is almost fat-free?
  • It originated in the Andes of South America and that it was brought to Ireland by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1585 and quickly became the staple diet of the population.
  • Since the early 1960s, the growth in potato production area has rapidly overtaken all other food crops in developing countries.
  • Presently, more than half of global potato production comes from developing countries.
  • The potato plant produces flowers and a fruit with up to 400 seeds. These tiny seeds, if planted, produce completely different plants genetically.  The potato can also reproduce vegetatively – a new plant can be grown from a potato or piece of potato.  The new plant, under the right conditions, can produce up to 20 potatoes or “tubers”.  These tubers are clones of the original “mother plant”.
Our shared history

So much of our history is linked to the potato. The great famine of 1847 was caused by the loss of the potato crop due to ‘Phytophthora infestans’ (Potato blight).

One million people died due to an over-reliance on the humble spud as our staple food.  Two million people were scattered across the world as a direct consequence of the potato famine.

An outsider could forgive an Irish person for shuddering at the thought of peeling a potato after the misery its demise heaped upon our forefathers.

Nonetheless, ask any tourist who visits Ireland what they remember about Irish food, and they will invariably refer to ‘the spud’.

Retail evidence from the time of the Celtic Tiger would have indicated that the potato had lost its place as our number one staple food.

We wholeheartedly embraced pasta, rice, and all other starch substitutes as we shook off our obsession with the humble spud.

But now, the wheel has turned full circle, and it seems that the potato is back at the centre of our dinner tables.

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Growing our own

The past year presented us with many challenges.  One of the few silver linings to our spring lockdown was a renewed acquaintance with the ‘Kitchen garden’.

With time on our hands and weather to spare, many of us discovered the delights of growing our own potatoes and vegetables.

Edward Kelliher in Tralee has noticed a swift trade in seed potatoes so far in 2021.

“Growing potatoes is hard work…but that said, a lot of people like to grow their own. We have people requesting Sharps Express, Pentland Dell and Maris Piper, which do well in the soils around here,” he told That’s Farming.

“Even though the Rooster makes up 65% of the potato yield nationally, the Kerr’s pink and the British Queen would still be planted a lot around here too. People love a floury spud.”

The Kellihers had three main suppliers of seed potatoes last year but are down to two for 2021.

“Lots of the bigger growers are getting out of potatoes. Margins are tight, and a lot of the big potato growers source their seed directly from the growers. They get the costs down a little by doing it that way.”

“On the question of Brexit putting a squeeze on the sourcing of seed potatoes Edward, said: “We had our orders in last autumn. There is big demand so far, and we’ll have to wait and see how the next few weeks pan out.”

“A lot depends on the weather, but I would expect there won’t be enough to go around if demand is anything like last year,” he added.

Vegetables, how to start a small veg garden in Ireland
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Cheap veg section

It will, indeed, be interesting to see what 2021 will bring in the garden. Will we leave our spades to one side and point our trollies towards the cheap veg section of our local supermarket?

Or will we seek out the local seed potato merchant as we kindle further the flames of our love for prataí?

We will be catch up with this ‘ap-peeling’ story again as the spring unfolds.

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